Vietnam vet, guardian angel have unlikely reunion
You never know who you'll run into at the store
The Voice, a nasal tenor, an outside voice, started to whine like a concrete saw.
"We needed Jason's Toothpaste," The Voice explained recently, the pitch rising just shy of shrill. "Just think
if we'd gone to a different store! Or if we hadn't seen our friends! We almost went to Fred Meyer instead!"
||Joshua Trujillo / P-I|
||Wesley Fisk, left, a 63-year-old Vietnam veteran, and
Thin Binh, 58, a former translator for Fisk, share a laugh at the Green Lake PCC grocery store yesterday. The pair accidentally
reconnected at the co-op, where Binh works. Fisk was in a checkout line, and Binh recognized his voice.|
Sandpaper, if it could, would talk like this. A drill, hearing it, might fall in love. The Voice stands in
sharp relief to the elegant, sublime sounds Wesley Fisk, 63, can make with his hands and his Scoggins violin from his second
chair in the Seattle Symphony.
But The Voice does have something going for it, something the hands can't claim. It is not easily ignored.
Or forgotten. After dec-ades and divorce, after drinking and detention camps, after war and weight and wrinkles and thousands
of miles and children and grandchildren, The Voice retained the power to reach into a shelved, shared past and yank it to
"When I heard it," said Thin Binh, 58, recalling the day a few weeks ago in a North Seattle PCC grocery store,
"I started thinking that this person is a friend of mine. But then I doubted it. I saw him, and I thought I must be wrong.
It's been so long."
Binh set aside the groceries he'd been bagging for PCC's customers. He walked over to The Voice. Unnoticed,
he waited for Fisk to finish his loud gabbing with the friends he and his wife had bumped into in the checkout line. Then
he tugged on the man's sleeve. "I used my quiet voice," Binh remembered. "I said, 'Are you Fisk?' "
Fisk turned and looked. Seeing nothing in the face, his eyes scanned down to the small man's nametag. It said
Memory jolted him.
The bustling store went silent. He clutched Binh like he was hanging on in a hurricane.
Thirty-six years ago, an injured Sgt. Wesley Fisk, a medic in Vietnam, unexpectedly was airlifted home to
Seattle. He had no time to grab his footlocker. He couldn't say goodbye to the man who had helped keep him alive for 11 months,
the interpreter who for decades Fisk believed had been killed for helping the Americans after the communists took over for
good in 1975.
"The first thing I heard was yelling and then, 'I know you! I know you!' " said Danyella McAllister, a checker
at the Aurora Avenue store who was working a few feet away when the encounter happened. "The guy had such a grip on Thin.
They almost hit the floor. It was clear they hadn't seen each other in a while. Then we heard it was since Vietnam.
"Everyone up front started crying."
In Fisk's home, weeks after the encounter, the men summed up their shock.
"I thought he was dead," Fisk explained.
Said Binh: "I did not know he lived in Seattle. I never thought I would see him again."
* * *
Fisk and Binh met in 1968 at Camp Enari near Pleiku City in Vietnam, an odd place to form a friendship between
two men who never wanted to be soldiers.
||Wesley Fisk shakes a village chief's hand in September
1968. Thin Binh, Fisk's translator, approaches in the background with powdered milk.|
Fisk was born in Seattle in 1941, one of two children. He began playing the violin at age 10 and immediately
showed tremendous promise. In college in 1965, while majoring in violin, he joined the Seattle Symphony. When later that year
he broke his wrist in a bicycle accident, he was forced to drop class units, relegating him to part-time student status.
He received his Vietnam draft notice 18 months later.
Thin (pronounced "tin") Binh was born in 1947 in the Vietnamese village of Duc Co. He is Jarai, one of a group
of highland, ethnic minority tribes broadly termed Montagnards, a French word meaning highlander. In school, he studied French
and English. He also learned Vietnamese and seven tribal tongues. Even so, he says, he never had any natural ear for language.
"But I try hard. I do my best."
On summer break from college in Saigon, he took a job with the U.S. Special Forces as a translator and interpreter.
It was 1965.
He wanted the job because he was worried about the communists. Plus, it paid well.
When Fisk received his draft notice, he wrote everyone he knew with any juice at all -- to no avail. In Houston,
he trained to be a medic and soon ended up in the U.S. Army Medical Civic Action Program.
MEDCAP was a component of what has been loosely described as the Army's "hearts and minds" program.
Through it, small teams of medics disbursed aid to remote villages, particularly those in strategic mountainous areas. The
sutures, penicillin, cough medicine and powdered milk, it was thought, would lease enough goodwill that villagers would spill
information about the area's hidden Viet Cong.
Fisk found himself stationed near the Cambodian border, at the war's edges and gray areas. He distributed
aid. Other soldiers interviewed locals. Central to everything were the translators.
Convincing the villagers the Americans meant well wasn't easy. It required an understanding of the people.
It required Binh.
"I was drawn to him on my first encounter," Fisk recalled. "We could talk to each other. He understood what
we needed to do."
||In February 1969, Wesley Fisk, a 27-year-old medic in
Vietnam, treats a Montagnard villager who had tuberculosis. |
The men traveled together, village by village, to try to earn the trust of the hill tribes. When Fisk distributed
penicillin, Binh was often next to him, explaining how the Americans wanted to help and what they wanted in return. Binh also
did something Fisk only realized years later; he carefully steered the lightly armed medics away from hidden Viet Cong camps.
"We would go into villages and immediately he would start talking to people," Fisk said. "Then he would bring
them over and know exactly what they needed. He was very thorough. He noticed everything."
Including things he didn't tell Fisk.
"I'm sure Binh saved my life on many occasions," Fisk said. "I have no doubt in my mind. In several cases,
villages were overrun but only after we left. Too many times for coincidence."
* * *
For his part, Binh is measured when he speaks about the American war.
The Montagnards, Binh said, are peaceful, friendly people with a desire to be left alone in their rustic,
hill-country villages. For decades, they had managed a calm, uneasy co-existence with the Vietnamese, who mostly lived in
the lowland and coastal areas.
Then in 1945 came the French, then the Vietnamese communists, then more French. Next came the Americans
-- first in small bands, then in full companies. Binh liked the Americans. They paid well, fought the communists and treated
the tribal people better than the local Vietnamese did.
The job as a translator and interpreter initially paid $100 monthly, several times more than any other available
job that summer. It was dangerous work. Some locals secretly were allied with the Viet Cong; others simply wanted to play
one side against the other. Binh was shot and slightly wounded in a dispute with another soldier who accused him of being
||Thin Binh attends the dedication of a new hospital near
Camp Enari in Pleiku City, South Vietnam, in November 1968.|
One medic stood out early on. The one who bothered to learn the language, to understand traditions. The soldier
-- "you could hear him from far away," Binh recalled -- was noisy, chatty, friendly and liked the Montagnards. He treated
them as people, his affection causing the other American soldiers to slightly ostracize him in the process. As a sign of respect,
Binh introduced the medic to his girlfriend, Blin.
"He was respectful. He seemed to care about us," Binh said. "He was my friend."
Then one day, Fisk disappeared.
"I didn't know what happened to him," Binh said.
What Binh didn't learn until recently was this: While on patrol in 1969, almost exactly a year after he arrived,
Fisk stepped into a small ravine and tore ligaments in his knee. He was sent first to a military hospital in Vietnam, then
to Japan and then home. He never returned to the base.
Fisk soon settled back into his Seattle existence. He was discharged, rejoined the symphony, got married,
had two children and developed a drinking problem. While in Vietnam, he had written a letter a day -- sometimes two -- to
his parents. They saved them in a box.
"Because I wrote so much, I put the memories away," he said, thumbing through a box of letters recently. He
produced a yellowed one dated Nov. 1, 1968:
"I really do believe the Montagnards are worth as much of our time and effort as possible to help repel
the V.C. threat over here," he wrote.
* * *
What Fisk didn't know until recently was this: In Vietnam, life for Binh got considerably worse in 1975. The
victorious North Vietnamese placed him in a labor detention camp, where he stayed until 1981, when most detainees were released.
"It was hard labor," Binh said. "We would get up in the morning and dig and dig all day."
In the mid-1990s, a cousin agreed to help Binh's family get to the United States. He moved here with his wife,
Blin -- the girlfriend he had introduced to Fisk -- and four of his seven children in 1996. He got a job with the PCC as a
bagger and stocker. He attended college.
He didn't know Fisk lived two miles away. Their paths didn't intersect again until late March. Even in the
same store, they didn't recognize each other until Fisk started talking. At the time, Fisk had a heavy beard. But The Voice
-- it hadn't changed a bit.
"When I heard it, I started to get emotional," Binh said.
Since then, the two families have had regular dinners together, reading Fisk's old letters and viewing the
several hundred slides he took while overseas. Binh's children never had seen pictures of their parents as young people. They
laughed when they saw their 20-year-old dad and mom.
As for Fisk, he's reclaimed a part of his life he'd pushed aside. The first step was when he quit drinking
for good in 1996. The second was when he needed toothpaste and picked a store he never uses.
Fisk knows The Voice stands out. He admitted that other symphony players -- people with some of the most finely
tuned ears in Seattle -- do spot-on Wesley Fisk imitations.
He laughed as he said this. The Voice always has been a source of attention. But where would he be now without